We will help families by expanding free childcare from 15 to 25 hours per week for working parents of three and four-year-olds. We will also introduce a legal guarantee for parents of primary school children to access wraparound childcare from 8am to 6pm…underpinned by a new National Primary Childcare Service, a not for profit organisation to promote the voluntary and charitable delivery of quality extracurricular activities.
This is a slightly awkward post to write. It probably comes as little surprise that my political leanings are left-ish, and although I am not so blinkered as to think that a Labour victory in next month’s General Election would mean a bright new (red) dawn for us all, it would be, in my eyes, distinctly better than any other likely outcome. I welcome most of the contents of today’s Labour manifesto as moves in the right direction, and I hope they get the chance to implement them. But one small section, playing straight to the gallery and cutting right to my own, admittedly subjective, preoccupations, made my heart sink.
I have written several times about how the “hard-working family” rhetoric grates. I have worked since having children, but I currently don’t do any paid work, since returning to my profession would, in our family’s opinion,exact too high a price of our children, and doing other work (even if I could get it) simply would not pay financially. It works, for us, as a family, for one parent to plough his energies into a career, while the other facilitates that by means of being at home. It isn’t perfect. I miss work, more money would definitely help, my future – financial and otherwise – preoccupies me. Yet this is the best compromise for now.
So, at present, I don’t earn. Do I work? Beyond the obligations of children and home common to all parents, in employment or otherwise, I would argue (and often do, in my head) that yes, I work. I do several hours of voluntary work each week, in the mornings when my youngest is at preschool; in the evenings when they are all in bed. I do it to support causes which matter to me, to keep my skills current, to give – as Pollyanna-ish as it sounds – something back in recognition of my own good fortune in life. For the purposes of identity, though; for deciding whether we qualify as a hard-working family in the particular sense it now has, I know that I don’t.
It perplexes me, often, to wonder how we value work and contribution. Is it required of us to earn to our fullest capacity in order to pay maximum contributions through income tax and National Insurance? Surely not, or we would laud those with the highest numbers on their PAYE slips and denigrate down shifters, or those taking early retirement. Those struggling to survive on incomes stitched together from long and insecure days working jobs at minimum wage and on zero hours would be hailed as paragons of virtue compared to those shirkers who pick up a few grand for a day or two’s non-executive graft. And this is just “work” in its recognised sense of paid employment, leaving aside the immeasurable effort expended, for little public recognition or thanks, in terms of caring responsibilities for dependent relatives or friends.
None of this is Labour’s fault, of course, nor even that of any one particular political party. Our changing concept of “work” has been shaped by shifts in our economy and society which go beyond the reach of any government. It still begs the question, though, of what this means for the very specific needs of the “hard-working family” with whom current candidates for No10 are desperately trying to connect.
So what has this pontificating on the meaning of the word “work” to do with the quote above, taken from today’s manifesto? On its face, it sounds like an eminently sensible proposal, and one of sufficient clout to have seen itself included in summaries of Labour’s key promises. Going back to the above, though, I would ask two questions.
Firstly: how is a “working family” to be defined in order to access the enhanced provision? Will it be required to demonstrate parental employment for the full 25 hours of entitlement, or would a parent who worked fewer hours still be eligible? Will self-employment count? How will those with insecure or fluctuating work patterns fare? Will childcare settings have to juggle two intakes, one, due to family situations which could include disability, caring responsibilities or other issues, who don’t meet the necessary criteria, the other who does? Is this increase, in short, a reward for working or a purely practical way of facilitating it?
Secondly: (and leaving aside the question of qualifications, aptitude and ability) who, precisely, will deliver these “voluntary and charitable” extracurricular activities? Parents are expected to be working, after all, not least since we are talking week days here. Grandparents are increasingly tied up with providing childcare within their own families, or supporting their own parents, let alone continuing to work past the age when a pipe and the sofa would once have been the norm. Is it envisaged that locals will pop down to the school between 3.30 and 7 a few times a week to play Snap? Good luck with that. It’s hard enough to get people to come to a short meeting once a term since work – even if it doesn’t coincide with the meeting time – already trumps all. This proposal boils down to a systematic subsidy of paid work, universally accepted to be of value, by its unpaid counterpart, which we are generally told doesn’t count. Do voluntary workers become hard-working if their work allows other workers to work hard?
It’s an interesting and, I think, well-meaning proposal; one which recognises the challenges of combining a job with school-age children and aimed at helping families who are under enormous pressure, but some of the assumptions need examination. More, they need challenge. The irony is that although so many working parents cite childcare as a huge priority, what they often mean is that they wish they weren’t forced into a situation where it becomes so. Really addressing this will take more than finding a way to remove children from the equation. It requires a proper consideration of how and why families work – in all senses of the word.